Groups, Counties Call for Renewal of Knowles Nelson Stewardship Program

Apr 9, 2021

Credit Katie Thoresen/WXPR

Jeff Currie and his wife Ann took advantage of the early snow melt to get a look at the latest progress on the Great Headwaters Trails.

“I must say this is the first time we’ve taken a look at it,” said Jeff. “It’s definitely dramatic.”

They’re exploring the corner of Song Hill Lane and County Highway K, west of Phelps. That’s where the 8.5 mile stretch of trail from Conover ends and the work on the last segment of trail is beginning.

Loggers cleared the trees in a portion of the Chequamegon Nicolet National Forest that will become the last segment of the Conover-Phelps Bike Trail.
Credit Katie Thoresen/WXPR

Over the winter, loggers came through and took down trees that are still strewn over where the path will wind through the woods.

“We walked through here several times with the Forest Service several times and so on as the thing was being planned. It’s interesting to see what the result is and what they’ve had to do to clear the corridor,” said Jeff.

This stretch that goes through the Chequamegon Nicolet National Forest and into the heart of Phelps is the last two miles of the bike trail that will connect Conover and Phelps.

It’s project that Jeff and Ann have been working on for about a decade.

“It’s a great feeling of accomplishment. We think it may be done by mid-summer,” said Jeff.

The Conover-Phelps Trail is one of many recreation projects in Wisconsin that have gotten funding from the Knowles Nelson Stewardship Program in the last 30 years.

The program provides money through the DNR to buy land for recreation, conservation, or forestry purposes. It also goes to recreation development projects like trail building.

Great Headwaters Trails got $150,000 dollars from Knowles Nelson for each of the last two segments of the Conover-Phelps Trail.

For recreation projects like the trail, the Stewardship Program will provide up to half the total cost, leaving towns and groups to come up with the rest of the money.

“It provides a great incentive for others, you know, if can say you’ve got $150,000, it’s a lot easier for others to contribute the other $150,000,” said Ann.

Jeff and Ann are in support of reauthorizing the Knowles Nelson Stewardship Program, as is the Vilas County Board of Supervisors.

Vilas County Board of Supervisors Pass Resolution in Support of Stewardship Program

The Board recently passed a resolution in support of reauthorization of the program.

Board Supervisor Holly Tomlanovich said the county depends on the funding from the program to support its economy.

“God gave us water in the form of lakes, over 13,000, gave us lots of woods, and lots of fun things for people who come from urban areas seek out,” said Tomlanovich. “We don’t really have any sort of industry other than tourism.”

Credit Katie Thoresen/WXPR

The resolution calls for a 25-year renewal of the program that has historical only been renewed for 10-year periods.

Vilas County is currently working on its 15-year recreation and forestry plans, plans that will depend on the stewardship fund.

“We would like some security and guarantee. It sounds like a ten-year period of time is really long. It really isn’t,” said Tomlanovich.

Langlade and Oneida County are considering passing their own resolutions in support the Knowles Nelson Stewardship Program.

Knowles Nelson Stewardship Program & The State Budget

In his budget proposal, Governor Tony Evers calls for $70 million a year for the next 10 years for the Knowles Nelson Stewardship Program.

That’s significantly higher than $33 million a year the program currently gets, but much closer to the $86 million in annual funding it once had.

But that proposal will have to make its way through the Republican controlled state legislature.

State Senator Mary Felzkowski (R-Tomahawk) said she would support reauthorization of the program, but not for the amount Evers is calling for and not for more than 10 years.

“I think we need to be a little bit more responsible in how we move that forward and the amount of debt,” said Felzkowski.

Felzkowski has a few issues with the program. She said the program adds too much debt to the state’s total because its main funding is through bonding.

“Since Knowles Nelson was first introduced, we’ve borrowed well over a billion dollars,” said Felzkowski.

The non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau said the state will need to pay a dept service of more than $78 million for the fiscal year that ends in June and more than $723 million through 2041 because of the Stewardship Program as it’s currently funded.

While that is a large amount of money, Charles Carlin with Gathering Waters argues it’s a small proportion of the $22 billion dollars of debt the state has every year and it’s return value outweighs the debt.

Credit Gathering Waters

“Filtering air and water, habitat for wildlife, protecting communities from flooding, giving us places to play, to recreate, to recharge,” said Carlin, “Those 650,000 acres of land protected by Knowles Nelson stewardship dollars are returning a more than a $2 billion value to Wisconsin every single year.”

Carlin heads a group of more than a dozen state non-profits that want to see the program renewed.

“Just from that work that nature is doing for us every single day, setting aside even all the industry that’s supported by the stewardship program, we get almost twice our investment back every single year as much as we’ve paid into the program over 30 years,” said Carlin.

Land Buying with Stewardship Program Money

Felzkowski also has issues with how much land is being bought with the program.

She says the program has been used to buy up too much land in the northern portion of the state where there is already a large portion of public land. Felzkowski argues when you have counties with 30% to 50% public land, you’re hurting the property tax base.

She’d like to see reauthorization with a cap on how much land can be bought in county based on how much public land it already has.

“Instead of buying 500 acres in Florence County, maybe we’d only be able to buy 40 acres outside of Milwaukee. I think the utilization would be better and we could get to people around Milwaukee or around Madison where there’s young people that wouldn’t have access to the great outdoors that would give them that access,” said Felzkowksi.

Carlin said money from the Stewardship Program hasn’t been as used to in the northern third of the state as it has in other places.

He said if you look at Knowles Nelson by how much money has been spent in a county, the only northern counties in the top five are Oneida and Florence. The others are Dane, Waukesha, and Door Counties.

In terms of number of projects per county, none of the most northern counties make the top five.

“I think that makes the argument that perhaps we actually need investment and not less in northern Wisconsin because there are such popular trail systems and forest land that really support the local economy up there,” said Carlin.

What Comes Next

Recent polling done by the Gathering Waters and the Nature Conservancy show support for the program.

According to the survey, 92% of state residents supported reauthorizing the program for another 10 years.  More than 75% support restoring the $86 million in annual funding it once had.

Carlin calls the program Wisconsin’s best source of funding for land and water conservation.

He fears without it, the state’s outdoor recreation and forest products industry will suffer.

“Wisconsin already ranks near the bottom in terms of spending per capita on parks and recreation,” said Carlin. “The Wisconsin Policy Forum ranks it 49th in the nation.”

Back in Vilas County, Jeff Currie doesn’t know where the Conover-Phelps Trail would be without Knowles Nelson Stewardship Fund, but he wagers not nearly as far as it is now.

“At any point, the lack of that program would have held up potentially, totally the rest of the trail. So, I don’t know. It could be none of this logging would have happened and we wouldn’t be standing here looking at it,” said Jeff.

Wisconsin Legislature’s Budget Committee is holding four public hearings this month, including one in Rhinelander on the 21st.

After the hearings, the budget committee will hold agency briefings before taking votes on making changes to Evers’ budget plan before the full Legislature votes on it sometime this summer.